RECAP: Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)

Assault on Precinct 13 (2005): Jean-Francois Richet

Remaking any movie is a troublesome prospect. Assault on Precinct 13 is a good choice, if you’re going to remake a classic. The original is well liked, at least a generation old, and made on a tiny budget.

The 2005 remake upgrades everything. Cast, production budget, cameras, even the besieged precinct station gets a second floor. The movie landed with a thud at the box office, but its cast put in a solid effort.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: It’s New Year’s Eve, and some very bad, very well armed dudes, mad at Detroit cops, surround a decommissioned police station and try to kill the eight cops, criminals, and civilians stuck inside.

Hero (5/10)

Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) of the Detroit Police Department has had a bad eight months. Assault on Precinct 13 opens with Roenick working undercover, trying to sell white powder to a Serbian drug lord inside a derelict apartment tower.

The deal goes wrong, Roenick gets made, and two of his underlings are shot dead. Roenick is shot as well, but he skips the dying part.

The memories of these dead partners weigh on Roenick each day, days he starts with a swig of whiskey and a pill or two, or ten, which he keeps in a matchbox. He meets with a therapist (Maria Bello as Dr. Sabian), even on New Year’s Eve, a woman who believes Roenick stuck himself behind a desk to avoid making decisions that might end someone’s life.

Ethan Hawke looking tough as nails. It's New Year's, and his resolution is to shoot yo' ass.
Ethan Hawke looking tough as nails. It’s New Year’s, and his resolution is to shoot yo’ ass.

Behind a desk is where we find Roenick on New Year’s Eve. He, a secretary named Iris (Drea de Matteo), and a retiring sergeant named Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy) are stuck in the station for precinct 13, a precinct shutting down at midnight. All the calls have been rerouted. No one is expected to come or go. Outside, a snowstorm rages, leaving Detroit in a blue haze as night falls.

Between arriving that night and the morning sun on New Year’s Day, Roenick endures much. He has a very bad meeting with his therapist, a woman he believes wants to sleep with him. He meets the most famous criminal in Michigan, and he almost dies about a hundred times at the hands of a dirty cop. We all want memorable New Year’s celebrations, but not THAT memorable.

Roenick finds his precinct surrounded and under siege by Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne), a cop formerly in league with and now at war with crime lord Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne). Once Roenick learns that the masked men attacking them are cops, he knows that all the people in the station are marked for dead. Kill or be killed.

So Roenick is forced again to make decisions that will save or end people’s lives. And he rises admirably to the cause. Roenick shows few traces of the reticent man who won’t decide anything. Iris notices, calling him a “badass motherfucker” as the movie ends.

Roenick sorting out some trust issues amongst the besieged.
Roenick sorting out some trust issues amongst the besieged.

Roenick expected a quiet night drinking on the clock, instead he’s faced with three dozen elite cops trying to murder him, his coworkers, and four criminals he just met. Sgt. Roenick could have crawled under his desk, could have let the situation overwhelm him, himself being a guy who lets the Lions make him anxious, and instead makes the right decisions.

Early in the siege, Roenick releases and arms the prisoners, knowing they can help. Even Duvall considers that a smart move. He refuses to send Bishop to the wolves; he won’t let a murderer walk out of police custody. Roenick shows his courage time and again, volunteering to venture outside when he knows snipers will shoot at him. He even volunteers himself as bait so his counterpart, Bishop, can make a move to kill Duvall.

Midway through the movie, as Roenick finds a huge Mexican standoff inside the station, he implores everyone, “Let’s turn over a new leaf.” That’s exactly what Roenick does. He doesn’t limp from his leg wound. But not all wounds are buried. Roenick might have given up pills during the night’s trials, but he takes up smoking in the morning. As he says to his therapist during the siege, “I want to live as opposed to I don’t want to die.” He does just that.

Villain (4/10)

Painting Marcus Duvall as a more corrupt, evil police officer would be hard. Duvall heads Detroit’s organized crime investigation, a position that allows him to rub noses with Marion Bishop. Duvall and Bishop once split their profits 50-50, until Duvall “got greedy” and wanted more.

Early in the film, Bishop rejects this demand in the meeting inside the Catholic church that leads to a cop’s murder, Bishop’s arrest, and his night locked up inside precinct 13’s station. After sending masked underlings inside the station, Duvall reveals himself to the audience as the mastermind, and he has plenty to say about his choices.

“I looking at this as a matter of simple mathematics,” Duvall says, as if anyone ever says “mathematics.” It’s either kill the eight people inside, four of them criminals, or let society destroy the lives of 33 men and their families’ lives. When you put it that way…

No. Bad, Duvall, bad. He should know that some of those men will die while trying to kill Bishop and the others. And a whole heap of them do. Was that worth it, Duvall? He never answers that question, never considers it.

Duvall considers one thing: he knows he will have to forever live with murdering those people. “I could live with that more than I can live with a cellmate.”

Duvall preparing to get his hands dirty.
Duvall preparing to get his hands dirty.

Oh, that’s some capital-V Villainy there. Duvall sits back during the station invasions, keeping his hands clean until later, when he murders Dr. Sabian after she won’t give up tactical information about the station.

In the climax, Duvall creeps through the woods after Bishop and Roenick. He outsmarts Bishop once, getting the jump on him and shooting him in the gut (he still needs to find Roenick).

Duvall’s a competent cop, but his fanatical criminality undermines his effectiveness in the siege. Much too late, the cops shoot tear gas into station. Tear gas is how you start the siege, especially when you don’t know how many people are inside. It’s also hard to believe Duvall could cover up the attack.

What makes the least sense is the deal Duvall tries to strike with Bishop. Duvall wants more money, Bishop declines, Duvall’s man in the church turns a gun on Bishop, who kills the cop, starting a firefight in the church.

Was Duvall planning to arrest Bishop? If so, Bishop, who says he cannot tell a lie, might have squealed on Duvall then. After the chase through the church, Bishop is arrested anyway, and Duvall is certain he will squeal on him then. Was Bishop going to be quiet if Duvall arrested him? Doubtful. The plan makes little sense.

Action/Effects (5/10)

Precinct 13 is better armed in the 2005 version than the 1976 original. They even have a tommy gun in the evidence room. In the original, the bad guys don’t enter the station until the climax. Not so in the update. The new villains are cops, well armed and trained for entering such compounds.

When these guys get inside, most are repelled and several leave their guns behind. These silenced automatic rifles are welcomed by the besieged and add to the film’s bullet count.

Laser sights criss cross the station early in the siege. Guns attached to those sights shoot out the windows, covering everyone in a lot of glass. Laser sights always add strong visuals to gunfights.

These cops have flash grenades, and they use them liberally. Such grenades have interesting incendiary characteristics. When they ignite, their lumens increase throughout the first second. I expected the brightest flash in the first instant. Not so.

Pretending to be Bishop's men, these cops wear ski masks.
Pretending to be Bishop’s men, these cops wear ski masks.

That reversal of brightness levels made for beautiful weapons, like a shooting star or ascending angel. The blue light evoked every portrayed image of the “light at the end of the tunnel” slowly glowing brighter.

Bishop nearly destroys the image when he affixes a flash grenade to O’Shea, who is about to murder him.

Duvall’s men have all the tools to breach the station, and they use them. Plastic explosives blow off the iron bars outside the windows. They shoot tear gas into the upper story. Their machine guns spray bullets everywhere. One scene recalls the original, when bullets make glass and paper fly all over the set.

One moment has two bad guys breach the front door. One man carries a riot shield that Roenick peppers with machine gun fire. The other blasts at Roenick with the shotgun he used to blow the lock off the front door. Anna, one of the criminals, forces a retreat when she shoots the gunman in the leg with a tommy gun.goons

With a siege movie, the bad guys can’t use all their tricks at once. Duvall doesn’t, because he wants the police helicopter to fly in through the storm and let guys descend onto the roof. I didn’t understand this move: couldn’t they find a ladder or two? The chopper was Duvall’s coup de grace, but it couldn’t fly until the storm abated, and he was on a time crunch.

Assault deals out less death than the original, but more head shots. One guy is stabbed in the eye and another shot in the eye. Roenick shoots at least two people in the head. Beck, another criminal, ends his escape quest with a bullet to his brain.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Sgt. Roenick calls the shots in the station. Several people of varying loyalty help. These characters and their interactions are Assault‘s strongest elements.

Chief among them is Fishburne as Bishop. Fishburne is as stoic and unchanging as a brick station house. Bishop, Detroit’s most famous criminal, lives by at least two codes: never lie, and always look out for number one. He repeats these truths often in the movie.

Bishop chooses his words carefully. In the church he has an answer for Duvall’s new deal. That answer is “no,” and Bishop looks Duvall’s messenger in the eye to slowly deliver this monosyllabic word.

An atheist, Bishop spends his time in church, in jail, anywhere, doing crosswords. This is a word guy, if not a wordy guy. Duvall’s men are “blackhats.” He tells Iris that “sex and death are very closely related.” Then he spouts off some Greek philosophy. Classy dude, this Bishop, when he’s not threatening.

In the slammer, you'll have all the time in the world for crosswords.
In the slammer, you’ll have all the time in the world for crosswords.

Bishop is a legend who’s been shot six times and has torn out a man’s Adam’s apple. With stares as cold as a Detroit snowstorm, Bishop intimidates everyone he meets. He knows the punchlines to all the best jokes. He opens doors with gun barrels. He takes himself seriously.

For such a large man, Bishop is skilled at melting away. He melts into the church after cops draw guns on him, and he melts into the woods after the climax, never to be seen again.

Drea de Matteo starts strong, wearing fishnets on New Year’s Eve. The camera slobbers over her legs as she decorates the station on its last night in operation. She bats away the love pledges of several cops. “I fuck bad boys,” she tells them. Cops ain’t bad boys, at least the good ones aren’t.

Maria Bello is strong in her few scenes as Roenick’s therapist. Ja Rule plays Smiley, a con artist who talks in the third person. John Leguizamo plays a chatty junkie, and Aisha Hinds is the toughest of them all, a woman who has never committed a crime in her life. However, she’s picked up some shit along the way. She has the fewest lines, but she gets to shoot the tommy gun, so maybe that was worth it?

Iris doesn't make love, she, uh, you get the idea they're going for.
Iris doesn’t make love, she, uh, you get the idea they’re going for.

These are good and bad people mixed up in the siege. Their interplay is Assault at its most interesting. One scene shows them in a giant Mexican standoff, as all parties are armed and mistrusting each other until Roenick smoothes over the situation.

A late edition to the station from another officer nearly divides the cops and robbers. Leguizamo’s Beck is ready to kill the poor half-drunk guy, who he thinks is a plant of Duvall’s. Duvall did have a plant, Beck fingered the wrong guy.

Bishop, obsessed with self preservation, knows the standoff will end with his death, or a confrontation with Roenick. “Our shit’s on pause,” he echoes Roenick, as if such words could never escape his lips.

Henchmen (2/8)

Duvall’s men, save one, attack the station with their faces covered. The first two inside the back door wear white ski masks, the better to make them seem like Bishop’s men. These two kill one sheriff immediately and shoot another, who later dies from his wounds.

Duvall seems to think this enough subterfuge, and the rest of the guys he sends wear flak jackets, night vision scopes, and laser-aimed silenced machine guns. Professional, faceless warriors that frighten with their inhumanity.

Carefully they infiltrate the station and kill the people inside. They get shot and beat down as badly, and by under armed and unarmed people. Bishop lights a guy on fire with liquor bottles.

I don’t know automatic weapons. It shouldn’t be hard for a group of four guys armed to the teeth to spray bullets across a room and kill two guys without body armor. It really shouldn’t. But that happens.

Chief among the henchmen is Sgt. O’Shea. I admit that he had me fooled. I figured him as incompetent rather than complicit. Dennehy and his angry, drunk Irish tropes annoy me, so I let these opinions color my judgment.

Never trust Irish cops.
Movie: never trust Irish cops.

O’Shea leaves his post often. He sows discord between the cops and the criminals. He’s mad all the time. He’s the first and only person willing to give up Bishop. He’s certain that the masked men besieging the station are “Bishop’s guys.” He “forgets” about the sewer running beneath the station until far into the siege. All the hallmarks of a shitty cop, and a dirty cop.

In perhaps O’Shea’s only moment of honesty, he explains that he has given up on the world. “Nobody gives a shit anymore about anything,” he complains to Roenick. For O’Shea, at least, that’s true. “I ain’t dying for that piece of shit,” O’Shea says to Roenick. “Or for you either, Jake.” That’s cold, friend.

Stunts (3/6)

Most of the killing is long-ranged. Roenick gets in a fight in the snow, a fight that appears uncoordinated, in a realistic way. Both men punch each other a few times and knock gun-holding hands on the snowy ground.

This fight ends when Roenick stabs his opponent in the eye with an icicle. That’s a baller move, but wouldn’t the icicle slip from his hand before it penetrated the eye?

A guy is lit on fire. That’s as high level as stunts get. Big time points right there. All the points coming from the guy on fire.

Climax (2/6)

When the survivors run through the sewer and make the surface, they find themselves found out. Someone ratted them out. Was it Capra, the late edition to the precinct station after Roenick saved his life?

No, it was O’Shea. He sold them out for a few bucks. The whole time we thought he was lazy and bad at his job. Turns out he was a turncoat. “You just killed us, Jasper,” Roenick says. “I ain’t dying for that piece of shit,” O’Shea counters.

Bishop riles up the retiring cop and plants a flash grenade on him when O’Shea takes the bait. The grenade flashes and all parties that survive the gunfight disperse.

Iris and Capra drive a truck away. A tire is shot out and the truck flips over an embankment for some reason.

Bishop, hoping to get away, takes Iris hostage for a sec.
Bishop, hoping to get away, takes Iris hostage for a sec.

Stuck and bleeding in the truck, Iris tells Officer Capra, “Act like you’re dead,” which certainly won’t work but is the best chance he’s got at the moment. Duvall’s #2 slowly approaches the truck on its side. He could probably run toward the roof and be fine. He checks on Capra only to find Iris clocking him in the head.

Iris chokes out #2, using a play from Bishop’s book. Problem is, #2 knows that play as well. He’s choking Iris good until Iris finds the knife on his vest and jabs it under his chin.

Meanwhile, Roenick and Bishop are in the woods as Duvall and one of his men track them. It’s hard to tell who’s hunting whom. They try not to make noise, but Roenick breaks first.

Duvall’s masked goon wears a night vision scope, but the woods are so bright that it wouldn’t matter. Snow’s really crunching in there. Bishop sneaks up on Roenick.

“Marcus Duvall still lives. For me that is unacceptable.” They hatch a plan. Roenick volunteers to draw fire. He sprints through the trees and succeeds, drawing the goon’s gunfire. Bishop spots the muzzle flash and walks up behind the goon, shooting him in the eye.

Turns out that Duvall was waiting for Bishop to show himself. He comes up on Bishop and shoots him in the gut. Plugging the wound with his gun barrel, Duvall says, “Call Roenick.” “Who’s Roenick?” Bishop asks. All cops are the same to Bishop. Although, introductions were not part of the night. Except, wait, they were! Yes, the criminals said hello, but Roenick did not.

Bishop says he cannot tell a lie and won’t call to Roenick that Duvall is dead.

Duvall couldn’t look Bishop in the eye ten years ago. Now he’s “a changed man,” Bishop says. Duvall digs his gun into the wound. Now it’s Roenick with the jump on Duvall. I wish these guys were saying “Aha,” each time they got the jump on someone. With each jump the “Aha” would get louder.

A HA!
A HA!

We have another Mexican standoff. “There’s only one cop here,” Roenick says. He asks, “How many more people are you going to kill tonight?” Duvall answers, “As many as it takes.”

Hey, here’s a question, if a dirty cop falls in the woods, does it make a sound? We’re about to find out.

Roenick has his smirk back, and why not smirk, when staring into the face of  evil? Duvall raises his gun and shoots Roenick in the arm before the hero puts a bullet in Duvall’s brain.

Now it’s Bishop’s turn with the handgun. Here comes another smirk. “It’s about that time huh?” Roenick thanks Bishop for not calling to him about Duvall being dead and all. “Self preservation,” Bishop reminds him. He’s not about to change after a night shacking up with cops while shooting at dirty cops.

Roenick promises to find Bishop. “No other cop, just me.” Then the cavalry arrives in time. Iris is there too. I guess they heard the dirty cop falling in the woods.

In the sunlight of a new year, Iris almost smokes again, breaking one of her resolutions. She tells Roenick that she almost didn’t recognize him. He was like a “badass motherfucker.” And guess who fucks bad boys.

Jokes (0/4)

What jokes? No. That’s not quite right. The criminals are the comedians. Not Bishop’s case, of course; he’s all business. Beck, Smiley, and Anna make us laugh. Beck is a junkie currently high, chatting up “Bish Bish Bish Bish Bish,” in the cell and on the bus. Smiley speaks in the third person, cause he’s Ja Rule and that’s a baller move. Anna is just mad, never committed a crime in her life.

Setting (2/4)

Like the original Assault, a closing-down precinct station is the setting of most of the movie. Detroit on New Year’s Eve, in a blasting snowstorm, forces the cops and criminals to make strange bedfellows.

Precinct 13 is an old brick warehouse converted into a station, at least that’s how it looks. With bars on the windows, the building appears more jail than police station.

With a larger budget comes larger digs, and this precinct building has an upper floor! Exciting! There’s plenty of stuff to get shot up in here, and, in an homage to the original, the bad guys shoot out the windows to make glass and paper fly everywhere.

It's cold out there. Better bundle up.
It’s cold out there. Better bundle up.

Props to the props team for all the fake snow they dumped on the set. That stuff really crunched in the climax in the woods. By the way, what were the woods doing beside the precinct station in Detroit? That was a strange finish to this gritty urban drama. My guess? These men were hunting each other like predators, like wolves, and the producers sought a primal setting for their confrontation.

Commentary (0/2)

The updated Assualt had a bigger budget and could higher more actors. Instead of voiceless murderers, we get dirty cops on the take from organized crime.

The original film hit theaters in the 1970s, when American cities were derelict, emptied of white people and their tax dollars in the era’s “white flight.” Gangs were a major scare for America’s moviegoers.

In 2005, we have cops taking cash from crime lords and trying to keep their names clean, if not their hands. Detroit is notorious as America’s most hollowed-out city. No city lost more people starting in 1950 than Detroit, more than one million.

Detroit is cash-strapped, so these cops probably sought an alternate cash stream.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Anna seems like the Angry Black Woman stereotype permeated throughout our society for centuries.

Others

  • Watching Duvall execute Dr. Sabian was brutal, one of the worst murders I remember seeing.

Summary (27/68): 40%

Assault on Precinct 13 does everything bigger than its predecessor. But not better. But not worse. Hawke and Fishburne turn in swell performances. Bello shines in a smaller role. The other actors work well with what they’re given.

The action is a slow burn, except for that time when it was a fast burn, when the guy caught fire. Assault is a fine way to pass two hours. Curl up where it’s warm, because this movie serves its justice cold.